Fashion show helps spread the word about HIV
By Glenda Rae Davis
SHIPROCK, March 22, 2012
(Times photo - Glenda Rae Davis)
W hat do you do to make people aware that HIV and AIDS is not something that just happens to other people in other places?
How do you raise awareness in your own community, especially when it's still far from routine to openly discuss sex, the main transmission route for HIV among Navajos?
The people behind Diné College's HIV program decided one way is free food, gas cards, iTunes cards, and models strutting the newest fashion trends with a Native twist. Free pizza, spaghetti, salad and punch were on hand, as well.
On March 8 all of that was part of the 2nd Annual Native Blossom Fashion Show, which the program sponsored in recognition of National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day.
The event was held in the Diné College-Shiprock gym, and began on a somber note with the latest statistics for HIV on the Navajo Nation, taken from a 2011 Indian Health Service report.
According to IHS, 389 people on the reservation have HIV or AIDs. In 2011, 39 new cases were reported, nearly four times as many as in 1999.
Among the new cases, the transmission route was as likely to be sex between men and women as it was between men. Woman made up almost a third of the newly diagnosed patients in 2011, an increase from the previous year.
Most of the new cases were diagnosed in Gallup but cases were found across the Navajo Nation.
The report did have some good news, stating that thanks to excellent treatment, Navajos with HIV are not surrendering to the virus and 55 percent of known cases had an undetectable viral load by the end of the year.
"Our main goal is to get everybody tested for HIV," explained Donald Chee, the program's HIV prevention specialist. "We want more people to realize that HIV is something that is on the Navajo Nation."
Talking openly about sexually transmitted disease is not easy to do in Navajo communities, but the HIV program forges ahead anyway. With treatment, HIV carriers can stave off AIDS and look forward to long, healthy lives, but those who do not get diagnosed and treated are doomed to become ill and die.
"The taboo of talking about sex is something the program faces every day," said Darlene Hunt, program director. "This needs to change in order for our youth and our people in general will have a better chance of fighting against the rise of HIV and AIDS cases on the Navajo Nation."
Incentives like those on offer March 8 are an inviting way to get people interested in being tested, a quick and easy process that yields results almost immediately, the program officials explained.
"Know Your HIV Status" was the slogan on promotional items large and small.
Sheldon Benally, the program's public liaison, urged people to get take advantage of the testing service he'd set up outside the gym, and handed out $10 gas and gift cards to all who took up his offer and got tested.
A matter of tradition
"The event grew since last year," said Danielle Goldtooth-Atene, a former Miss Diné College who was the guest speaker and also took part in the fashion show. "We had close to 30 people attend last year and this year we had over 50 people. I'm glad so many people were able to make it out."
Goldtooth-Atene got the crowd's attention with an exercise called "test-tube sex," in which everyone got a vial filled with water and was directed to exchange droplets with other people. Of the 38 people taking part, 32 were asked to make three exchanges. Six people, representing virgins, were instructed to make just one exchange.
At the start, one vial contained a chemical that represented HIV. When the vials were tested at the end of the exercise, 14 of them had the chemical, including two of the "virgin" vials.
"As you can tell, even if you were to have unprotected sex one time you could still catch HIV," Goldtooth-Atene told the crowd.
While this and other lessons of the evening were sobering, the event organizers kept the mood from getting too gloomy, ending on a note of pure enjoyment as Goldtooth-Atene and eight other models, ranging in age from toddlers to 30-somethings, strolled out wearing original designs by Pam Goldtooth of Shiprock.
The attire ranged from business to traditional to formal wear. All pieces were Southwest inspired and primarily made from velveteen, silk and Pendleton woolens.
The line stretched from jackets to tops, bottoms and footwear, drawing waves of applause as each model left the stage.
Goldtooth, the aunt of Goldtooth-Atene, started out by making clothes for her niece.
"I used to only make clothes for Danielle but she told me I should start a fashion line," Goldtooth said.
She got involved with the HIV program when Hunt asked her to furnish the main attraction for the annual event tied to National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day.
Hunt said she was both humbled and happy about the outcome of this year's Native Blossom Fashion Show, and hopes to continue it in the future.
The program's director since its inception in 1991, Hunt believes there's been a lot of progress, "but I think we need to do more. We would love to have every one in the Navajo Nation be tested."
Carlene Goodluck, former Miss Northern Navajo and currently a student at Diné College, agreed.
"I think it's very important that everyone know his or her HIV status," said Goodluck, who served as mistress of ceremonies. "I also believe the youth need to be educated more about HIV, AIDS and how to use protection when it comes to sexual encounters."
To Goodluck, it's a matter of following tradition.
"Our Native teachings have always told us to take care of ourselves. They tell us to know about ourselves and this is just one of those ways," she said.
Quoting another Miss Northern Navajo, Jonathea Tso, she added, "Our bodies are worth a million dollars and it's what you invest in it that keeps your million-dollar body well. So get tested and know your status."
The HIV program offers free HIV testing at the Diné College-Shiprock campus to anyone who wants to get tested.